Panel 11:Environmental Communication



Panel 11: Environmental Communication

Al Gore’s Armageddon? The Persuasive Binary of Apocalyptic Rhetoric within Climate Change Discourse

Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In order to understand the effectiveness of employing apocalyptic rhetoric, this presentation looks at Al Gore’s public presentations made between 2006 and 2016 along with how his arguments have been taken up and manipulated by antagonistic media sources (more).

Snap, Tag, Share: Seeing the Small Picture of #OurChangingClimate

Sheryl-Ann Simpson, Bret Snyder, N. Claire Napawan, University of California, Davis

This presentation introduces an ongoing participatory environmental design project that utilizes social media to construct small picture narratives of climate change. A main goal of the project is to shed novel light on stories of people being affected by climate change. Beyond explaining the movement and analyzing results from it, the presentation will call for further contributions moving forward (more).

Let’s NOT Talk: Silencing the Climate

Roberta Laurie, MacEwan University

This presentation evaluates the roles of organized climate denial, ideologically motivated reasoning and the privilege of society-environment relationships in the formation of climate denial. It explores the author’s own experience with denial living in Edmonton, next door to the Alberta Oil Sands, and suggests some strategies for effective climate communication (more).

Q & A

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45 replies
  1. Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

    In my talk, I refer to the complexity of discussing the connection between emissions originating from the Alberta Oil Sands and climate change. As I type this message, Fort McMurray (the oil sands’ supporting city) is burning. 90,000 residents have been evacuated and at least 1,600 structures (homes, businesses, etc.) have burned. The destruction is apocalyptic in scale.

    On May 3, 24 temperature records were set throughout the province, and more records were set again yesterday. On May 3, the temperature in Fort Mac reached a record breaking 32.6 Celsius. The seasonal average is somewhere around 14 degrees. This after weeks of unseasonably hot weather throughout the province. The fires are almost certainly connected to climate change: “This (fire) is consistent with what we expect from human-caused climate change affecting our fire regime,” Mike Flannigan, a wildfire researcher at the University of Alberta.

    Yesterday Elizabeth May, our Green Party leader, spoke about the connection between the fires and climate change saying, “The fact that the forest-fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event.” She’s since been heavily criticized for politicizing a tragedy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was hesitant to discuss a connection. He cautioned people not “to make a political argument out of one particular disaster.”

    This post was being shared on FB yesterday: “A wildfire is not a political act. Please refrain from using this devastating event to push your political agenda. There are thousands of actual human beings that have been uprooted and some have lost everything. Lets band together to lend our support. The opposite of being divisive and petty.” And Mike Hudema of Greenpeace posted this: “I don’t think climate change is, or at least should be, a political agenda. It’s a scientific agenda that our politicians can either respond to or ignore. My question is at what point do we talk about the fact that the conditions that led to this horrific event aren’t natural?” I’ve also read some very angry posts. This being one: “One middle finger for them, my other for the jerks posting outright lies about how Notley and/or Trudeau don’t care or are doing nothing. The overwhelming majority of people, leaders and citizens alike, right-wing conservatives and democratic socialists alike, have enough decency to focus on helping human beings in need instead of playing petty politics.” This post was accompanied by an article from the Edmonton Sun:

    My question to you is this: Is now a good time to talk about climate change? Should the Fort Mac fires be seen as a teachable moment or is it just too soon? And if it is a good time to have this conversation, how should that discussion be conducted?

    I would love to read your thoughts. (PS I will be off the grid until Monday, but I’ll be checking for responses once I get back.)

    All the best,

  2. Jaigris Hodson, Royal Roads University says:


    I think it’s interesting that you explore the potential of apocalyptic rhetoric, however even in Gore’s case, we can see how this strategy can be used against the person employing it. How would you recommend we employ this rhetorical strategy without fueling our detractors? Thanks!

    • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Hello, Sherlyn-Ann, Bret, and Claire,
      Thank you for sharing your experiences with your #OurChangingClimate workshop. I’m interested in hearing more about who the audience was for this initiative. You mention I-Seed and community groups and reference your particular interest in connecting to a younger demographic, but I wonder if you could tell us more about the kinds of folks who were participating in all this. Were they predominantly people already concerned/aware of climate change issues? Did the workshop function (to borrow a religious metaphor) more as evangelism or discipleship?
      Additionally, is this the kind of thing that you envision being applied to the classroom setting? Does it lend itself to curriculum development?

      • Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

        Hello Matthew,
        Thanks for the questions. The folks we worked with in the first workshop were probably what I would describe as climate change agnostic to continue the metaphor. One of the interesting outcomes of the pilot workshop was that by paying a different kind of attention to climate change – thinking about it in their own lives, paying different attention to relevant media for example this video [], and thinking about how they might draw people’s attention to the issue with their own posts. Folks walked away feeling more capable of engaging with climate change after the fact.

        In terms of audience we’re definitely still thinking about that, and would love to hear other’s thoughts. In terms of the workshops, we certainly see this as potential classroom material and are working on formalizing that to work with a couple of different disciplines. We’d also love for it to be used in more non-formal educational settings, and I think the focus really is more on the agnostic that the choir.

        In terms of the collection of mini-narratives, I think there’s a wider potential audience, in our work it’s an interesting starting point to think about priorities around climate change adaptation, and it would be great to hear how others might use this type of resource.
        Thanks for watching.

  3. Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

    Hello, Jaigris. Thank you for your question and your interest in this application of apocalyptic rhetoric!
    The extent to which this kind of language and these kinds of allusions should be used in conversations and arguments about climate change is one of my big questions as well. I’m starting to think that the potential benefits of talking about climate change in apocalyptic terms is not very great at all. And it seems like the detriments are substantial. The threat that the world is going to end is just about the biggest threat imaginable, but has it changed anyone’s mind about climate change? There is a Smith and Leiserowitz piece (“The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition”, 2013) that mentions that while eliciting worry is influential in getting people to support climate change, conjuring full-blown fear pushes people too far. It makes them want to avoid, dismiss, or doubt the issue. (I think there are all kinds of rich areas for our friends in experimental psychology to consider how people respond to climate change when it is framed in terms of the apocalypse.)
    I guess I’m recommending that apocalypse not be employed as a rhetorical strategy within climate change discourse. And not talking about the end of the world in this context is tricky, because what we see around us and what we read about regarding the future projections seem really grim. But “really grim” does not equal bottomless pits and swarms of mutant locusts a la Revelation 9. I’m beginning to think that mixing the realities of climate change with the fantasies of apocalypse is not an effective way to make our case. And mixing these things sure does make us an easy target for our detractors.
    What do you think? Is it too much to consider taking apocalypse out of the equation all together?

    • Jaigris Hodson, Royal Roads University says:

      Good question. In my work, I see the “apocalyptic” scale of the climate change issue is indeed part of the problem. It’s like human beings have difficulty making sense of the immensity of it all. Furthermore, when the issue is described in this way, I think people may feel like change is impossible. But this brings up another question. When we remove apocalytic rhetoric, what shall we replace it with? How can we communicate a big problem, which should inspire immediate action, without resorting to end of the world discourses? I wonder if we need to focus on other benefits of sustainability and carbon reduction, in order to address climate change in a more round about way? But I don’t have a definitive answer. What do you see as the solution?

      • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

        Jaigris, I think the concept of “compassion fatigue” fits well within this conversation regarding how folks have a hard time taking in the vastness of this (or any other unimaginably large) problem.
        And your question about what we might replace apocalyptic rhetoric with is a really piercing and challenging one. I’ve been thinking about that for a while now, and I’m not sure I have any clear answers either. Focusing on the practical benefits of solutions adds hope into the mix. Certainly grounding conversation about climate change discourse in scientific knowledge as opposed to speculative fiction is an important step (and Al Gore does a lot of that, actually). Perhaps it could be valuable for rhetors focused on climate change to also very openly acknowledge that they aren’t talking about the apocalypse. I want to believe that we can honestly address present and future catastrophes and destruction and problems and change without getting too melodramatic or grandiose. Maybe we need to remind our audiences that as much as they might hear it, we aren’t talking about the end of the world. A world change-yes. A world conclusion-no.

  4. Joanna Nurmis, University of Maryland says:

    This is about Matthew’s talk. This was AMAZING! Thank you so much. I am a scholar of the visual communication of climate change through photographs and have drawn much the same conclusions as yours with regard to the use of apocalyptic imagery to engage with the public on climate change. There is an inherent tendency among communicators to believe that such “compelling” images with a large scope and inspiring unequivocal terror, harkening back to the tradition of 19th century sublime nature paintings, will move hearts and minds out of their stupor, move them to DO something about climate change. I argue the result is quite the opposite – the aesthetic sublime of impending apocalypse provides an immediate catharsis, and then… we open our fridge and see what’s on TV. Your talk was so important and I completely agree with you, that both in words and in images, “mixing the realities of climate change with the fantasies of apocalypse is not an effective way to make our case”.

    • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Thank you so much for your encouragement, Joanna, and I’m glad to hear that my thoughts resonate in such interesting ways with your work on the sublime.

  5. Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

    I really enjoyed your presentation, Matthew, and I would agree with your findings. The use of fear to motivate audiences is problematic. It can motivate in the short term when the perpetrator is easy to imagine, but very difficult to use in the abstract. Even a concrete villain can alienate an audience. In the last Canadian federal election. Past Prime Minister Stephen Harper attempted to use fear of the outsider (Syrian refugees) to gain reelection. It ultimately backfired, and he was defeated soundly. In climate communication, I think it’s even more potentially off-putting. I do think it’s possible to use current extreme weather events to help people imagine the threat of climate change though. These events have the potential to bring communities together, and they give people a tangible indicator of what can be a very abstract concept. But I suggest this strategy be applied with extreme caution. It must be tempered with careful framing and the possibility of solutions to the problem.

    • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Thank you for these thoughts, Roberta. As I’ve been reading about and looking at pictures from the fires running through northern Alberta, I’ve been thinking about the extent to which even those can function as form of grim persuasion. I agree with you that talking about present realities (which Al Gore does a good job of) is a different thing than is making future predictions.
      I also appreciate your point about how current catastrophes bring people together. That raises an important, relational aspect to this conversation and the reminder that while people might feel like it’s futile to try to save the world, they might be convinced to help their friend or neighbor.

      • Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

        Thank you for your response, Matthew. It’s been interesting, and sometimes frustrating, to watch the conversation unfold. Many journalists have been thoughtful and cautious in their approach. One of my favourite pieces is this one, which ran in the Huffington Post just the other day: But there have been some posters and pundits that have been confrontational and aggressive either because they think Albertans got what they had coming to them (“Let Alberta burn” and It was “karma”) or because they think anyone the fire to climate change is “self-righteous” and should be given “the middle finger.” Someone even posted that it was probably started by “eco-arsonists.” It’s these two extremes that make the conversation incredibly challenging. As a communications junkie though, this is fascinating stuff.

        After listening to your presentation, I began to think of Gore’s approach in terms of classical rhetoric. It’s been a while since I saw “An Inconvenient Truth” or watched Gore’s TEDTalk, but from what I recalled, he presented a persuasive rhetorical argument. In terms of classical rhetoric, he balanced the three appeals: logical, emotional and ethical. Although his emotional appeal strays into the apocalyptic at times, he relies on logic to strike something of a balance. His intrinsic ethical appeal is good: he’s a powerful speaker and he is able to gradually and progressively build a cohesive argument. But his extrinsic ethical appeal has always been a problem. He will always be politically aligned with the Democrats in people’s minds. So for people who are of the Democratic persuasion, his arguments appear credible. For people of the Republican persuasion, his arguments are immediately suspect. I don’t know how he can move past this dichotomy. I don’t think he can. I’m sure you’re familiar with Dan Kahan’s work on the influence of culture in our perception of climate change. This is a over-simplification, but I think — in general — Gore’s message was either successful or doomed from the start, depending upon his audience’s political affiliation. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

        • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

          Roberta, I recently read a passage from Rehill’s The Apocalypse is Everywhere that I think speaks in interesting ways to this idea that a speaker’s political ethos might damage the effectiveness of the message. Writing about Rachel Carson, Rehill comments, “Chemical companies tried their best to discredit her. Her ideas were decried in some circles as overly emotional and even communist. The fact that anyone could construe a warning about possible environmental devastation as communist propaganda is a good example of the Cold War paranoia that existed at the time” (165).
          Except I think it’s wishful thinking to assign that politicized critique of Carson’s work to some kind of holdover from McCarthyism. Turning environmental concerns into partisan arguments seemingly is just another well-worn strategy for undermining the speaker and therefore the message.
          I agree with you that Al Gore’s position as the former vice Democratic president and the ostensible winner of the 2000 election makes his political position more obvious and therefore more problematic for some people. But I also think the likelihood that he would have been attacked as just another tree hugging liberal opportunist would have been high no matter what his political past had been.

          (And thank you for the Dan Kahan lead. I’m not familiar with his work, but I look forward to learning more about it.)

          • Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

            I haven’t read Rehill’s book, but I think I’ll pick it up. Sounds like an interesting angle.

            • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

              (Since Rehill really tries to account for all the places that apocalypse has popped up across historical and cultural texts, it reads more like a survey synopsis than a deep analysis. As such, if you do pick it up, I recommend using it as a reference book more than anything else.)

  6. Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

    Hello All,
    We tried to keep it short and sweet with the presentation, but we’re happy to answer any questions or provide more details about the project and our questions.
    On thing that we’d love to hear is how or if this growing collection of mini-climate change narratives might be useful to other researchers, so it would be interesting to hear any ideas or thoughts there.

  7. Jessica George, Indiana University-Bloomington says:

    Matthew – Thank you for your interesting presentation! I thought you might be interested in an essay by Dana Phillips titled “Posthumanism, Environmental History, and Narratives of Collapse” (from ISLE March 2015). I’ve used it to teach about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tropes in creative texts about climate change. Phillips begins the essay by discussing the tendency of environmental historians to impose a collapse narrative onto the stories they tell. I saw a connection between this idea and your examination of Gore’s apocalyptic rhetoric about climate change which itself seems like a kind of narration of history, since, as you say, he’s not only discussing the apocalyptic future but an apocalyptic present and recent past.

    Sheryl-Ann, Bret, & N. Claire – I’ve been looking for examples of collaborative projects between DH and studies of climate change rhetoric, and I look forward to exploring #ourchangingclimate with my freshman composition course in the fall. Thank you for sharing! To draw some cross-panel connections, #ourchangingclimate seems to overlap with some of Ann Dale & Jaigris Hodson’s ideas about digital conversations and climate change in Panel #2.

    Roberta – I’m fascinated by your comments about the conversation around the (so-called) “politicization” of recent Fort Mac wildfires. It would be interesting to do a large-scale study of the “politicization” critique that seems to now immediately follow all climate-change related natural disasters in Canada and the U.S. I remember similar debates surrounding Hurricane Sandy, which happened right before the last presidential election.

    • Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

      Jessica, Thanks for your comments, hadn’t had a chance to take a look at Panel#2, but will do, all of the interesting overlaps from the conference have been great + I love that I don’t have to miss anything. And do get in touch directly about your composition class, it would be great to hear what you are planning/if there’s any ways that we can support.
      Thanks again.

    • Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

      Re: “It would be interesting to do a large-scale study of the “politicization” critique that seems to now immediately follow all climate-change related natural disasters in Canada and the U.S.” I was thinking the same thing.

  8. Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

    Matthew and Roberta: I really enjoyed the talk, and (also as a Canadian) I have been trying to think through the issues of when to talk about the climate background of the fires. My interdisciplinary doctoral climate program has a blog, and I coincidentally posted a few of my thoughts there yesterday ( I’ll paste a relevant paragraph here, although I’m not sure my views are completely fully-formed yet, since I think it’s not an easy issue:

    “I hope that these kinds of disasters will lead those who deny climate change to look into the conditions that increase the probability of such events; I think that this harsh shaming rhetoric won’t change minds. Part of the tension is in [Martin Lukacs’ at the Guardian] piece; while these energy producers do contribute greatly, we need to remember that accusing them shouldn’t let all of us (especially those of us in the industrialized world) shirk our own share of the causal responsibility. Considering only the supply side means that we might forget the role that our demand plays.”

    • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Thank you for sharing this, Kian. Your reference to our shared culpability in climate catastrophe in regards to our consumeristic demands resonates strongly with my concerns that the dominant worldview of ever-increasing consumption either has to change or will be changed by what happens next. This, I think, also speaks interestingly to what Kim Stanley Robinson says in his keynote about the larger capitalistic economic structure needing to be dismantled if we really want to see productive and systemic change.

      • Joseph Nevins says:

        Thank you for your talk, Matthew. You certainly make a convincing case regarding the pitfalls of using the totalizing language of “apocalypse.”

        I was struck by your characterization, at the end, of global-warming-induced changes as “long-lasting and long-acting.” I’m wondering how different spans of time fit into your characterization, how time-specific ravages associated with climate change, for example, “work” in relation to your characterization. In other words, given the different temporal spans over which the violence of climate change unfolds, what do you see as a helpful to characterize it?

        On a related note, how do matters of space and society–in terms of the differences, scales, spheres, etc within these categories–inform your thinking regarding appropriate ways to talk about climate change?

        If what I’m asking is not clear, please don’t hesitate to say so. Thanks for considering this.

        • Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

          Hi Matthew and Joseph,
          I’d be interested in hearing your response to Joseph’s question because I had similar thoughts around the success of messages depending on different contexts. For instance, while you’re critical of the ‘Armageddon’ approach to communicating the inherent dangers of climate change (and I think you succeed in making your point!), I am of the understanding that someone like Richard Cizik was able to use references to Revelations etc with a great degree of success in increasing acceptance of climate change because he was able to tie this reference in with the interests and understandings of his community, evangelical Christians. Based on this, I wonder if the best way to communicate issues around climate change to a global North audience would be to tap into the interests of the developed-world community, consumption. Would it be better to communicate the effects of climate change based on a reduced output of ecosystem services? Messages could accentuate the ‘here and now’ nature of reduced availability/quality of services, without relying on forward projections and apocalyptic imagery, which, as your presentation points out, may not arrive ‘on time’ or can be overlooked. Just a thought I had…

          I would also agree with your comments around the ideas that regardless of Al Gore’s political position his very message would have led him to be branded as a tree hugger or liberal opportunist. But isn’t that the biggest problem that we face in having the public accept the threat of anthropogenic climate change, that deniers appear to successfully brand anyone who seeks to promote action on climate as an environmental extremist? Or at the very least claim that ‘the science isn’t settled’ etc? This is particularly the case as with every passing year there is a larger body of climate predictions and comments that the deniers can dissect and label as ‘wrong’, regardless of the caveats that scientists have placed on the specifics of the findings. There’s a nice little video of Stephen Scheider discussing these issues on youtube (Stephen Schneider: Climate Science and Media Distortion). I am saddened to think that more than five years after his death we are still struggling to gain widespread acceptance of climate change.

          • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

            Hello, Joseph and Genevieve,
            Thank you for encouraging my thought further regarding these issues of space and time. In talking about global climate change as being “long-lasting and long-acting,” I was trying to underline how the reality of climate change differs from the expectations of apocalypse. Apocalypse is depicted as coming with defining and absolute clarification. When the world ends there won’t be any deniers. But climate change doesn’t work that way; its problems echo into the next generation and the one after that and beyond.
            I think it’s interesting that rarely do apocalyptic prophecies set Judgment Day for 100 or 250 or 1,000 years in the future. It’s about the immediate, the soon, the in-my-lifetime. And while the effects of climate change are being experienced now, they will also be experienced in years to come.

            So, if apocalypse may not be rhetorically effective (as Genevieve points out at least for particular audiences), what would be a helpful alternative? This is an excellent and challenging question and one that I’m still asking. I like what Genevieve offers in regards to considering issues of consumption and the here and now? I’d love to hear more speculations regarding what that might look like.

            • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

              Joseph and Genevieve, I just ran across this passage from a 1989 article by Eric Zencey that offers some additional insight into this issue of time:
              “Certainly, the ecology movement would have done better–and would do better in the future–if its partisans drew their image of time not from the romantic notion of history with its apocalyptic redemption, but from nature, where there is no apocalypse–just continual, and sometimes dramatic, adaptation and change . . . There won’t be a particular morning in which we rise and stretch, and glancing out the window, realize that it has happened. The rhythm of the apocalypse will be in geologic time, where a crisis can last 1,000 years and the moment of judgment can be played out in centuries” (93).

              • Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

                Hi Matthew,
                What a fantastic quote! It definitely provides a good conceptualisation of the gradual unfolding of climate change, and the idea of the ‘apocalypse’ playing out over many lifetimes. However, the problem with this description of climate change is that it somewhat diminishes the urgency of the need to act on climate change now. I worry about the way some members of the community could co-opt descriptions like this and use it as reason (or at least excuse) for further delay. How do we balance this gradual and unpredictable unfolding of climate change with the need to persuasively justify a drastic reduction in emissions right now?

                • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

                  Genevieve, this is a really compelling question. It gets to this idea that while the disaster of climate change will play out across geological time in a way that will never be instantaneous or absolutely defining, our response to it needs to be urgent and immediate. And if we admit that climate change is not and will not unfold like an apocalypse, then will the message that change is necessary lose its potency?
                  I do think that there is hope in the truth that individually we are capable of responding immediately to threats even if they aren’t immediate. I know I’m not at risk of having a heart attack tomorrow, but I’m willing to go swimming today to keep my heart healthy for the long run. Of course, even within this analogy there is embedded the reality that a whole lot of people don’t act to resolve distant threats; many people don’t go to the gym at all. And to be honest, my swimming is motivated by more than just the possibility of a future heart attack; I intrinsically enjoy being in water. And maybe that issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is a useful one to consider when it comes to climate change. If the extrinsic threats of climate change are gradual and therefore challenging to wield as absolute proof for necessary and immediate behavior modifications, then what are the options for tapping into intrinsic motivation?
                  To move quickly to specifics, I feel like the carbon tax solution side-steps this issue by locating a different external motivator (i.e. people’s wallets), and given how much we care about money, maybe it’s more realistic to try to change people’s behavior instead of their hearts.

                  • Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

                    Hi Matthew,
                    I would tend to agree with you. It does seem that the greatest successes we see in reducing emissions are programs that don’t seek to inform/educate the public about climate change and the need for lifestyle changes but instead are those that underscore changes to industrial or economic processes (eg in relation to mandatory energy efficiency improvements or direct carbon taxation). Using your health analogy, after decades of education and quite innovative strategies to reduce smoking in Australia it looks like taxation of tobacco (which will see a cigarette cost about AU$2 by 2020) is likely to have the greatest success in changing people’s habits. But for that to work we need to have governments on board and resistant to pressures from industry. I’m hopeful that governments are waking up to the need to institute economy-wide change, even if it is in order to maintain economic activity as opposed to promote environmental benefits.

  9. Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

    Thanks for a really interesting talk. I was wondering if you could share a bit more about those non-scientific/moral influences you start to talk about at the end of your talk. I noticed that the examples were both religious and pretty high level, and wondered if you saw a potential moral role for non-religious actors, and for more community based influences. Thanks again.

    • Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

      Although religious figures have the potential to move large groups of people, I do see a role for community-based influences. It’s more difficult to point to a specific leader, but as more people show that there is not only a scientific consensus on climate change but a “community consensus” as well, we’re more likely to see more people become accepting and engaged. “Community leadership” you could call it.

      I mentioned the people’s climate march in my talk. This was a remarkable moment for me because I personally experienced something I hadn’t experienced within my community before. By avoiding the connection of climate change to oil production, the march was able to engage people in Edmonton and Calgary in the conversation. This is frustrating for me on one level, but it gives me a great deal of insight into how people are processing climate change information in our province. Most people are not ready to seriously discuss the connection because they have too much personal investment in the oil economy. But if you can skirt around that, you can engage them. I think this is a gateway to developing awareness of the issues. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.

      I also think that there is a role for activism in the building of community. I’ve noticed this particularly around the various controversial pipelines in Canada. They have brought together a number of unlikely allies. There was one protest in particular. You may not have heard of it: the Burnaby Mountain protests. I won’t go into great detail here, but this was in reaction to the expansion of the TransMountain Pipeline. Burnaby had just experienced a major pipeline spill, and now KinderMorgan was planning to twin the pipeline and was going onto protected land to take initial measurements and readings. The community (including the mayor and council) banded together — somewhat successfully — to oppose the development. This brought together people that you wouldn’t expect and created a strong bond within the community. It would make an interesting case study on environmentalism and community building. I wrote about it a bit in my blog: I believe we need to approach climate change from multiple angles, but always with a number of considerations in mind, the foremost of these being finding common ground with our audience.

      • Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

        that question of common ground seems so important and also complicated — as you point out in the example of bracketing ‘oil talk’ in calgary. thanks again for this talk and your response, looking forward to seeing where your thinking on all of this goes.

  10. Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

    Hi Roberta,
    Thanks for your paper. As someone from that ‘other’ great resources state, Western Australia, there was a lot in your presentation I could empathise with. I think what I thought was most accurate in your representation was not the deniers, but the culture of the everyday people that leads them to reject strong support for climate action. The truth is, much of our economy in Western Australia is highly reliant on the emissions-intensive resources sector and we lead carbon-intensive lifestyles (particularly in terms of flying). Although I don’t have statistics to support my claim, I would imagine that many in WA would see any action on climate change as a direct threat to their livelihoods and lifestyles. For example, our last federal election was fought in large part on the introduction of a carbon tax (which was repealed by the incoming government). The promotion of an alternative economy is therefore key to inviting the public to ‘care’ about climate change. Your use of imagery around Greenpeace promoting solar as an alternative to fossil fuels is an excellent example. From what I see here, any interest in sustainable livelihoods, particularly in regional communities, only comes after an economic decline. Do you have any lessons from Alberta on whether your community is interested in this transition, and if it is how was this interest generated? It would be great to see an orderly transition, rather a forced transition after a ‘broken’ model.

    • Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

      There are numerous initiatives going on in Alberta right now, both independently and government assisted. The Lubicon Lake First Nation just installed 80 solar panels to light and heat their community health centre. This is especially significant because their territory is very near the oil sands and they were recently affected by a large pipeline spill. In many ways, the installation was a political statement as much as it was a move toward sustainable energy. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is downstream from oil sands development has also been installing solar panels; although I’m not sure how big the project is. The community of Devon, just south of Edmonton, just installed solar panels on its community centre and are planning to extend the project to a dozen or so municipal buildings. This is significant because it is in the heart of oil country, right next to Alberta’s first oil well. Recently there was a petition circulating that called on the provincial government to help finance the training of electricians, formerly employed in the oil sands, so they could work in the solar sector. I haven’t heard whether or not this had any success. With the new NDP government in the province, we have seen an enormous shift in approach. My talk was, necessarily, abbreviated. I couldn’t go into the minutia of the Alberta situation. It’s quite complex — especially right now. We have a new “progressive” government after decades under a right-wing, controlled-by-corporations conservative party. All this as oil prices have hit the lowest they’ve been in many years. It’s a bit weird to watch the disconnect. On the one hand the provincial government has laid out seemingly progress climate change initiative. On the other, that initiative doesn’t effectively address the oil sands problem. I would say that much of the population holds a similar view: we need to do something about climate change, but let’s not talk about the oil sands. It’s very strange to watch. The Fort Mac fires have contributed to this disconnect. It’s become the topic we can’t/need to, won’t/must talk about. It is in every way a case study in denial. Anyway, the provincial government has a number of solar incentives, including a rebate for farms. It is also using a portion of past carbon levy revenue to encourage solar installations on municipal buildings; although I’m not sure how much this will amount to. I suspect it will take some time for it to make a noticeable difference. In general, momentum is building, and as long as oil prices don’t surge upward soon, I think it will continue.

      • Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

        ” I would say that much of the population holds a similar view: we need to do something about climate change, but let’s not talk about the oil sands. It’s very strange to watch. The Fort Mac fires have contributed to this disconnect. It’s become the topic we can’t/need to, won’t/must talk about. It is in every way a case study in denial. ”
        I agree completely, and as you point out Norgaard’s work also highlights this well. I think there’s an expectation that government will somehow take the initiative and develop policies to ‘save’ us from climate change, without acknowledging that this will likely result in fundamental changes to the way our societies function, particularly for resource-intensive economies. It would be a very brave government indeed which develops the kinds of initiatives required. It will therefore be interesting to see how your progressive government tackles the issue…

        • Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

          This has already happened. Among other places, you just have to go over the neighbouring province–British Columbia. BC adopted a (revenue-neutral) carbon tax some time ago. It has been, by all measures, a success (that pro-tax publication The Economist even wrote a positive note on it). As for the bravery that was required, it was significant. There were several factors that had to come together including the business lobby and a brave leader who was willing to go against his party. For an excellent scholarly account of the politics, read this:

  11. Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

    Hi Roberta,
    I also wanted to provide a comment regarding when we should suggest that a weather event is linked to climate change. I’m also pretty torn about this. I can understand people’s negative reactions to the use of a ‘natural’ disaster as an ‘excuse’ to highlight the negative impacts of climate change, but at the same time what better time is there to highlight that climate change has considerable impacts, right now? In Australia we had a flooding event (it drives my dad crazy that we no longer say ‘a flood’!) a few years ago and the scientific bureau waited some time (from memory it was about a month) to run models and test scenarios to determine an approximation of how the extent of the flood was influenced by anthropogenic climate change above long-run and reliable climate in the area. This seemed to balance the sensitivity of the personal loss in the event, and gave a robustness to the findings, that was helpful. But did it have the same impact in the media as if we had discussed it at the time of the event? Probably not.
    There is another side to this, however. I can’t help reflect on a book by Eric Knight where he talked about the importance of emphasising the difference between weather and climate. An educated audience knows that there are fluctuations in weather events over time, but that the long-run increase in temperatures associated with anthropogenic climate change will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events. However, if we emphasise the link between climate change and single weather events we run the risk that in the absence of extreme weather events the public’s ‘belief’ in climate change will diminish. We saw this in Australia with the end of our severe ‘Millennium drought’ (1999-2006) coinciding with a reduced belief in climate change in the public. I guess a much more simplistic example would be that guy who threw a snowball around US congress and said it was ‘proof’ that the globe isn’t warming!

    • Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

      Isn’t that interesting: “We saw this in Australia with the end of our severe ‘Millennium drought’ (1999-2006) coinciding with a reduced belief in climate change in the public.” I didn’t know this. I can see how some would make this assumption, especially if you have a vocal group of deniers pressing doubt. I’m not sure the answer to this. It seems like we need to educate people on a basic level of science, but that’s difficult if they aren’t interested (and I don’t really believe that’s the necessarily the best approach anyway). In his book Reason in a Dark Time, Jamieson talks about the role of scientific illiteracy on climate denial.

      There’s a neat little video by Neil deGrasse Tyson that demonstrate the difference between climate and weather: It’s quite charming if you haven’t seen it already.

      You’ve given me much to think about.

      • Genevieve Simpson, University of Western Australia says:

        What a wonderful little video! Thanks for sharing.

        My own research looks into perceptions of residential solar energy and much of my research is showing the low levels of energy literacy, even within educated populations. I think the same probably exists for climate change. Various media outlets have done a wonderful job trying to raise interest in climate change, but often this involves simplifying concepts (and the mixing of weather and climate is common). Similarly, benefits associated with solar are over-stated or simplified so consumers, although very happy with their systems, aren’t really sure how they work or how to make best use of them. It is a complex problem given, as you point out, people might not be interested in making the effort to know how it works. Balancing expectations with reality, particularly if we are to expect people to ‘sacrifice’ or make considerable changes, will definitely be a challenge in the future.

  12. Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

    What a great session. I see some similarities between Matthew Fledderjohann’s and Roberta Laurie’s talks. Matthew criticizes apocalyptic rhetoric from climate change supporters and opponents alike. Pope Francis, quoted at the end of Roberta’s talk, so eloquently locates climate change in its place in such a long and very human history of struggle for justice, love, and peace. Isn’t it ironic that the Pope, who might have been tempted by the apocalyptic tropes, so nicely avoids them.

    • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Thank you, Parke. Your thought about what the Pope might have done with apocalypse offers a generous consideration of his rhetorical choices. I appreciate you calling my attention to that (purposely avoided?) connection.

    • Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

      I think it speaks to the Pope’s ability to empathize. As communicators, I think this is important above all else. Too many people try to force their paradigms on others. Sometimes this works, but ultimately I think they’re exclusionary. We need to think of how we can connect with people. How are they internalizing our message?

  13. Roberta Laurie, Royal Roads University says:

    Sheryl-Ann: This looks like a fantastic project, and it’s directly in line with my own research. I would love to hear more details. Have your results been written up and published?

    “I know it’s about everything and impacts everyone.” This is such a powerful quote.

    • Sheryl-Ann, University of California, Davis says:

      Roberta: thanks and yes I definitely agree that there are lot’s of interesting overlaps.
      The first peer reviewed publication is under review right now looking more at the process, and we’re working towards a second likely in the fall more about the content. We can likely send you drafts with all the usual caveats.

      In keeping with the flavour of the project we also put together a Storify story that you can access at:
      And then the site will have more information as the project moves along.

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